This book explores one of the great moments of transition in modern history — the French Revolution — through the lives and experiences of the inhabitants of six villages. It joins together the problem-oriented approach of the comparative historian and the craft skills of the micro-historian to produce an unusual, authentic and above all decentred analysis of the way a generation of French country dwellers responded to the pressures threatening to alter their lives fundamentally from the 1760s onwards. The reader will judge how far this project has been successful. The practice of comparative history is usually confined to large-scale social phenomena, and it is an open question whether a genre that might be described as 'comparative micro-history' can — or should — exist. The research for this book commenced under no particular theoretical or methodological banner. As anyone who has worked at the grass roots will testify, the availability or non-availability of source materials tends to overshadow all other considerations. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to give the impression that the book simply evolved in a random and haphazard manner. Three guiding ambitions served to direct and structure my investigations: a desire to improve the 'reach' of social history in an area that historians of France think they know rather well; a desire to transcend the ubiquitous village monograph; and finally a desire to try to avoid a composite or 'synthetic' history of the experiences of country dwellers in which examples are culled from far and wide in order to illustrate propositions that have usually been formulated in advance. Most history writing is synthetic in this sense, of course, and we could not manage without such accounts. However, its explanatory capacity — in the field of rural history particularly — is fairly modest and there comes a time when our knowledge and understanding of the past can only be enhanced by adopting alternative strategies.
The issue can be put quite simply: how are the limitations of traditional village monographs to be overcome whilst at the same time unlocking the potentially valuable information they contain? Long ago Albert Soboul